Lesson 7 of 7 - evolve a high-nurturance stepfamily

Suggestions to Stepfamily Grandparents

They face unique challenges

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council

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The Web address of this article is http://sfhelp.org/sf/gp.htm

Updated  05-02-2015

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      This page hilights common stressors that typical stepfamily grandparents may experience, and provides suggestions and resources for managing them.

      This article assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this nonprofit Website, and the premises underlying it.

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 thru 6,

  • Perspective on effective grandparenting (Lesson 6)

  • these stepfamily facts, Q&A items, and problems; and...

  • this example of a real stepfamily

      This YouTube video summarizes common stepfamily stressors:


      I've studied lay and professional stepfamily literature since 1979. One learning from that study has been that authors generally ignore what people in the important role of stepgrandparent need and experience.

      There are six or more living and dead grandparents in a typical stepfamily and over 100 structural types of stepfamily, so individual circumstances vary widely. However, the adjustment tasks and problems that typical seniors face (below) are common.

      Most modern American stepfamilies follow the divorce of one or more adult kids. Older American seniors grew up in an era where divorce was uncommon and often shameful. Stepfamilies were usually associated with prior-mate death, and were notably less common than they are today. That promoted the feeling that stepfamilies were "odd," "unnatural," and somehow "inferior" - which could breed unconscious shame and guilt in some stepfamily members.  

      Premise - psychological and legal divorce strongly suggests one or both mates and their parents and other ancestors are significantly wounded and unaware. That raises the odds that the parents of divorced children were divorced themselves at least once. So the seniors may be single, re/married, or re/divorced. That can add complexities to the relationships with adult kids, their ex mate, and their new mates and stepkids. In other words, either new stepfamily mate may already be part of a stepfamily formed by their parent/s or grandparents.

      To begin appreciating what it's like to be a stepfamily "co-grandparent," consider...

 Typical Grandparents' Adjustment tasks

      Typical parents of single parents must adapt over some years to these overlapping challenges...

  • learning their role as (biological) grandparent; and...

  • changes from aging, retirement, and eventual illness; and...

  • an adult child's divorce or a child-in-law's death; and then...

  • relating to a child's ex mate and their relatives; and...

  • possibly their child and grandkid/s coming to live with them; and...

  • their child's choosing a new mate and cohabiting, and perhaps...

  • their (re/married?) child and grandkid/s relocating, and...

  • the disability and eventual death of their own mate.

Note that an adult child and each of their children must adapt to several of these at the same time their seniors do.

      Let's look a little closer at some of these divorce-adjustment needs. If you know parents of a divorced mom or dad, keep them in mind as you consider these common needs:

Manage anxiety over (or disapproval of) their child's choice to recommit. Parents may feel their daughter or son is re/committing too soon, and/or to the wrong person. If so, they can feel torn about not interfering vs. being honest about their doubts and worries. Accept their identity as a new (or reorganized, larger) stepfamily, and learn what that identity means. Not doing this causes a web of unrealistic (biofamily-based) expectations about their new family roles and relationships, which can confuse and stress everyone.
Adjust personal and family identities - "I need to accept that (a) I am now the Mother/Father of a divorced child, and that (b) we are a family of divorce." Regain self confidence and self respect - "I need to rebuild my belief that 'I am a competent-enough parent and person, despite my child's divorce."
Reduce guilts - "I need to reduce any recurring thoughts and feelings that my partner and I did something wrong as parents." Mourn lost dreams - "I need to accept I can  no longer count on being old and contented with my kids and grandkids in the way I used to."
Adjust relationships  - "I must decide how I want to relate to (a) my former son or daughter-in-law and (b) his/her family now; and (c) agree with my partner and (d) child on that. Then we all have to (e) discover and (f) accept how they each want to relate to me, my partner, my child, and my grandchild/ren." Adjust family roles  - "I have to negotiate and agree with all affected family members on how we're each going to revise 'who does what' for whom now. What should I expect from myself and each relative now?"
Adjust family rules - "We all have to revise and stabilize how and when each of us does our role responsibilities with each other, and how we judge our own and each other's role performances." Adjust family rituals - "Holidays and some of my/our daily rituals will change because of the kids splitting up. I must accept that we'll never again do some special things together that I have come to deeply cherish."
Clarify and stabilize boundaries - "I need to redefine my personal, parental, and marital limits are in this new family situation."  Sometimes this boundary adjustment includes having an adult child and grandkids move back in to the "empty nest." Adjust financial security - "I need to review and possibly revise my (or our) plan on retirement funding, insurance, and estate bequests, to maximize our and our child/ren's future security." 
Regain spiritual faith - "I have to reconcile my belief in a loving Higher Power with the major pain I'm experiencing from my child's divorce (or death). How can this be part of a truly loving God's master plan?"  Revise personal and family priorities - "Before my child's divorce (or death), I was focused on work, retirement, health, and social affairs. I need to adjust my time, energy, and resources to help my child and grandchild/ren fill their many needs."
Help their kids and grandkids understand and manage loyalty conflicts, and resolve any of their own. Help their kids and grandkids understand and manage values conflicts, and resolve any of their own
Help their kids and grandkids understand and manage any membership conflicts, and resolve any of their own. Help their kids and grandkids understand and manage any new relationship triangles, and resolve any of their own.
(add any other needs)



      How many of these common adjustment needs for parents of divorcing kids could you have named before reading this? This is an illustrative summary, not a comprehensive one. Any grandparent will have a unique mix of needs like these. Note that most or all these needs are simultaneous. Other well-bonded relatives have mixes of similar needs too.

      So typical stepfamily-grandparents' plates are full. Over time, they must adapt to normal developmental changes + child-divorce changes + stepfamily-creation (merger) problems while attending daily life responsibilities. If they're widowed, divorced, and/or disabled, many seniors must do this without informed support.

      How can co-grandparents best manage all these adjustment tasks?

Suggestions for Co-grandparents

      Whether new to stepfamily life or a veteran, seniors can help raise the nurturance level of their dynamic multi-home family over time by taking steps like these:

_ 1) Learn about the toxic [wounds + ignorance] cycle, and invite other family members to learn and discuss it, starting with their adult child/ren.

_ 2) Accept  responsibility for breaking the cycle in their family. Begin by studying Lesson 1 and assessing themselves and each child for psychological wounds. Discuss this assessment process and the results with other family adults, including new step-relatives. Encourage them to assess themselves.

_ 3) Commit to reducing their own psychological wounds, and support other family members in doing the same - including both living parents of each grandchild..

_ 4) Accept that you all are members of a multi-home stepfamily, which is very different from the biofamilies you're all used to. Doing this will prepare you to form realistic expectations of yourselves and each other. If any of your members have trouble accepting this, see this.

_ 5) Draw and discuss your genogram (stepfamily diagram) with other adults and older kids. Be prepared for normal confusion and conflict about family membership.  This can lead to useful discussions about who's included in the multi-generational stepfamily. If members are conflicted about this, who's responsible for resolving the conflict? Consider questions like these:

  • "Who is leading our multi-generational stepfamily?" If the answer is "nobody," how likely is it you all can evolve a high-nurturance stepfamily over time?

  • "Who leads each of our co-parenting homes?"

  • "How satisfied are our family members with this leadership recently, and how do we know?"

      Option - draw and discuss structural maps of your related stepfamily homes to further identify strengths and problems in and among your homes.

      More steps stepfamily grandparents can take to strengthen their multi-home family.

_ 6) Each co-grandparent review and clarify their personal priorities. How important is "Improve the nurturance level of our stepfamily and protect our young people from inheriting psychological wounds"?

_ 7) Each co-grandparent review and clarify their personal responsibilities to all their other stepfamily adults and kids. If they're not responsible for forming and guiding overall family policies and goal together, who is?

_ 8) Identify specifically what each of senior has lost because their child was widowed or divorced. Then study and discuss Lesson 3 to discover their family's past and current grieving policies - and update or clarify them as needed.

_9) If appropriate, assess the degree of divorce recovery in each affected adult and child. If some of them need support in recovering, decide how to help.

_ 10) Study and discuss (at least) Lessons 5, 6, and 7 and invite other family members to do the same. Give special attention to understanding and resolving these common stepfamily problems.

_ 11) Make (vs. find) time to identify and celebrate your stepfamily's strengths together. This can promote cross-generational bonding and good feeling, Agree that "non-strengths" are growth opportunities, rather than flaws, weaknesses, or failures. Option: do this annually, to affirm and enjoy your stepfamily's growth, bonding, and strengthening.

_ 12) Study and discuss these suggestions about how to choose helpful stepfamily advice, books, and professional counselors. Help your adults keep alert for possible value in some or all of your adults participating in a local or online stepfamily support group.

_ 13) Stay alert for other stepfamilies in your church and social communities. If you find other like-minded co-parents and co-grandparents, make opportunities to meet and support each other. All your adults and kids need empathic understanding, caring, and acceptance - and other steppeople are most likely to provide these.

      Note that there are over 100 structural kinds of stepfamily. Though others' family structures won't match yours, their primary relationship needs and the problems they're trying to solve are exactly the same!

+ + +

      Pause and notice your thoughts and feelings. Think of any stepfamily grandparents you know (like your parents?), and consider how they would react to what you just read. If you are such a grandparent, are you motivated to follow these suggestions?


      Typical minor and grown stepkids can have six or more living and dead co-grandparents. Each stepfamily grandparent can have many step-grandkids. Trying to grow stepfamily-wide clarity and agreement on alien new step-grandparent and step-grandchild roles (responsibilities, goals, and expectations) can confuse and conflict all your family members and supporters!

      This article builds on this perspective on grandparenting. It adds...

  • typical grandparents' adjustment needs if their child (a) divorces or is widowed, and (b) commits to a new partner; and...

  • specific suggestions for managing common stepfamily role and relationship problems.

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or ''someone else''?

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